A partial biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., framed by the events in the eponymous Alabama town, Selma tells of Dr. King’s efforts to build on the victories of Civil Rights Act and extend the realities of political participation to a black population still largely excluded from voting. David Oyelowo nails the lead role, delivering a version of MLK that is uncannily reminiscent of the archive footage with which we are all familiar. He shows King’s passion, his focus, and his commitment to his strategy. He also captures the poignancy of King’s awareness that his approach would not only invite abuse, beatings and perhaps death, but that it demanded just that suffering if it were to succeed. MLK speaks early on about a town where law enforcement had calmly carried his protesters away, breaking up their demonstration without creating the ‘white consciousness’ that was required to drive change. In Selma, the court house police and eventually a National Guard driven by a governor whose actions cannot be excused by the stupidity of the local sheriff provide just the confrontation that King needed. History is turned, but at a cost to others of which King is painfully aware.
The supporting cast is solid. King’s entourage are entirely convincing, each different, each believable, each a real character. Carmen Ejogo plays a Mrs. King who is aware of how her husband’s chosen path must impact her and her children, but who supports and loves him throughout. MLK’s infidelities are handled perfectly in a short but moving scene where Coretta confronts King with a simple question that he takes an age to answer. While she will not dismiss the truth behind Hoover’s fakery and his forged attempts to undermine King, neither will she allow the FBI it to destroy her marriage or distract from his work. It is a perfect metaphor. We should not paint King as a saint or deny his shortcomings. He was a man, and a fallen being like us all. But neither should we allow those failings to become our focus, nor should we let those who dwell on them for their own reasons take away from the message of King’s life.
There have been criticisms of the film’s version of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson as a man whose presence leads you easily to believe he is the leader of the most powerful nation on earth) with many saying that the movie unfairly shows him resisting King when he was in fact a supporter. Perhaps. I am not a historian, so I cannot say if Johnson was more aligned with King than Selma credits. But this is a story inspired by history, not a precise retelling. LBJ stands here for the American people, and for whites in particular. He is basically a good man, but he is distracted and does not want to face what is going on in his own country. He allows those around him to undermine King, and he ignores the plight of the blacks until he can ignore it no more, and until he is forced to decide between becoming the man he believes himself to be, or becoming the monster represented by Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth, excellent, and walking the line perfectly between chilling and over-the-top). The imperfect LBJ of the movie comes around just as the imperfect American people came around, and his ghost should have no complaint if historical accuracy is pushed a little to the side to allow him the honor of embodying his nation as a whole.
Technically, the movie is well-executed. The photography is attractive, consistent and well-framed, with a palette of browns and creams capturing the era and the earth tones of the Alabama dust. The pacing is unrushed, and the movie would have suffered had it been much longer, but it never feels too slow. This is a movie about a march – a steady, deliberate advancement towards a goal – and the film’s evolution matches that progression. I suppose I could complain about Oprah giving herself a suitably noble cameo and about how this took me out of the movie, but frankly I didn’t even notice her until I read the credits. (Sorry, Madam O. I’m sure being noticed was as important to you as playing the role, but I’m also sure that you won’t miss my recognition.) I did cringe at the play-out music, with a stupid line about “[walking] through Ferguson with our hands up” making me wonder what Dr. King would have made of those who have inherited and devalued his legacy, but by then the movie had done too much good to allow a cheap line to undermine the message.
In summary, then, a solid movie with excellent performances, telling a moving and powerful story.
What else do you want?
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